CHAPTER ONE


You made a mistake...

The thought drummed through Kylie Barton's mind as she strode along the darkened trail leading from her small homestead to Payton's Bluff. She had made a terrible mistake and God would damn her for it if she weren't somehow able to reverse the events she'd set in motion.

Before a man died.

It didn't matter that man deserved whatever happened to him. Not a lick. It didn't matter that she despised him more than any other single human being--if he could rightly be called such--on God's Green Earth. It didn't matter that she'd let her hate seethe inside until it became a poison boiling in her soul. It only mattered that she had sent a telegram requesting the services of a killer, one who would likely scoff at any thoughts of reneging at this late date. He was riding from Texas, after all, on the promise of payment for a job rendered.

She touched the bulge the greenbacks made in her skirt pocket, shivered. Maybe he would accept payment and go about his way. Wasn't there a chance, even a slim one, this could be stopped?

Another shiver rattled her. Fear crawled up from the pit of her belly and caused her to stumble in her step. A band of tightness clamped about her chest. The path wavered before her vision, as she grew momentarily light-headed.

Drawing a deep breath of the chilly autumn air to calm herself, she found it did nothing more than make her shudder uncontrollably. She wished she had dressed in something heavier than a blouse and skirt, but she knew that chill would have penetrated to her bones even had she bundled up in layers of wool. Too much of the coldness swelled from within, frosted guilt at the steps she'd taken to right a wrong. Steps that warned her if she went through with what she'd planned she would be no better than the man she despised.

Wrapping her arms about herself, she fought to rein her fear, but every tiny noise from the forest made her start.

An aspen leaf crackled beneath her high-laced boots. The hardpack held a varnish of frost and to either side the darkened shapes of ash and fir, maple and spruce, swayed under an iced breeze. Shadows distorted, weaving into menacing shapes that seemed to claw at her legs.

Edging just above the trees, the blood-colored October moon glazed the leaf- and pine needle-blanketed ground with tarnished light. Her breath puffed out in frosty ghosts.

Ky-lie...

She stopped, heart jumping into her throat, a small sound of fright escaping her full lips. Her amethyst eyes widened with worry, as she turned her head to peer at the trail behind her. A ribbony stretch of rust and black leading into the ebony distance met her gaze, but nothing else.

Head swiveling forward, she caught herself holding her breath and forced it out. Had she heard something? A whisper? She could have sworn it had come from somewhere behind her, a harsh hiss of a thing that spoke her name.

No, that was impossible. She was alone out here, alone and more frightened than she could ever recall being.

Except for that night...

She would have heard someone riding up, wouldn't she? The man who was supposed to meet her would surely have a horse; at least, she reckoned he wouldn't come on foot.

A crashing of brush made her start; she swore her feet came inches off the hardpack. Her heart pounded and she spun, as the sound continued, retreating into the woods.

An animal of some sort. That's all it was. Nothing more. Only her shattered nerves inflated it into something threatening.

"You're scaring yourself silly, woman," she said under her breath, hoping to convince herself she was jumping at shadows. The words provided her little confidence or comfort.

Turning, she looked back in the direction of her homestead, but saw only darkened trail, a trail suddenly grown as sinister as the road to Hell.

"Why did you ever send that telegram, you stupid woman? Why did you go and make things worse? You could have just done what the rest did, let it go, let him get away with--"

Another sound stopped her murmuring cold. Another movement in the brush. This time she felt certain no animal made that noise. She froze where she stood, unable to force her legs to take another step, unable to draw a breath. Her mind began to reel and she feared she would collapse into a heap on the hardback, quivering like a child in terror of the dark.

You're stronger than that, Kylie Barton. You have to be. You can't let it happen again. Never again...

Her gaze swept across the edge of the forest. She forced herself to breathe and the sour stench of decaying leaves clogged her nostrils. How she hated that odor; how it reminded her of his rancid, whiskey breath and that cold night only a month past...

Something moved again in the woods, something shadowy and instantly terrifying. It brought a flood of emotion and memories of that night, reminded her what evil could lurk beneath the frigid autumn moon.

Whatever prowled in the woodland moved slowly, stalking her like a mountain cat set to pounce on an elk, but she refused to let her terror make her easy prey, the way it had before.

Whirling, she ran, muscles stiff and gait clumsy. She nearly tripped over a section of branch that had fallen onto the trail. Ankle twisting, pain ripped through her calf and foot. Tears flooded her eyes, though she wasn't completely certain they weren't more from fright than pain.

She stumbled onward. She couldn't let pain stop her, couldn't let whoever was out there gain an inch of ground.

A sudden crashing came from the woods diagonally to her left, roughly ten feet back. Someone was there, someone gaining on her.

"Please, God, don't let it happen again..." Her words came in stuttered gasps. Her lungs burned. Her heart pounded so severely she swore it would burst through her ribcage. Memories swept before her mind again, flashes of images--his face, his hands, his smug expression as he--

She let out a bleat as her toe hooked a rut in the hardpack. She plunged forward, thrusting her arms out before her. Agony tore through her palms as they contacted the ground and flesh scraped against pebbles and frost-hardened soil.

Her arms buckled and she came down on elbows and forearms. Her torso impacted a second later; air exploded from her lungs and stars burst across her vision.

She lay there, stunned, unsure whether she had blacked out, because suddenly she was gasping and staring straight ahead at the trail, as if a curtain had whisked up.

Tears flooded her eyes again but she refused to let them flow. Get up, she told herself. You have to go on. You can't give up.

She pushed herself up into a sitting position, palms singing with pain and skin scraped off various places all the way to her elbows. Her blouse had torn along one side, exposing the chemise beneath.

Fear filled her with strength. Blood rushed through her veins, hot with adrenaline. Her legs quivered as she rose to her feet, casting a sweeping glance along the woods to her side, then behind her.

Quiet. The shushing of the breeze fondling the leaves, the shimmering of shadows coupling with dirty-amber moonlight.

Her heart pounded in her ears; her pulse throbbed in her temples. She shuddered, fearing she would shake loose from her bones and fall back to the ground. Only her terror-filled memories of a month before held her up.

Emptiness loomed behind her. No one sprang from the woods, nothing moved now. Had she imagined it? Had terror gotten the better of her nerves and rendered her rational mind incapable of distinguishing the difference between nightmare and reality?

Maybe it was some animal after all, a bear, a cougar.

Wrapping her paining arms about herself, lips quivering, she uttered a silent prayer and decided to hell with the man who was supposed to meet her. Let him meet up with whatever was out there in the woods. He damn well took his chances in his line of work.

She turned, intending to run for home and never look back.

Instead, she froze. A wave of ice washed through her body until she suddenly could no longer feel her legs. A scream died in her throat and her head reeled again, the trail swinging in an arc before her vision. She was going to lose consciousness and that would be the end. She would be vulnerable again, and this time she knew she would never live trough it.

A man stood there, unmoving, leaning against a tree, eyes narrowed and somehow glimmering in the dusky light. His face appeared pale, soft-featured, yet at the same time held a measure of viciousness she'd seldom witnessed on a human being.

The man chuckled, a sound that held no hint of humor. He pulled a silver case from his shirt pocket beneath his dark coat, then flicked it open. Selecting a cigarette he poked it between thin lips and returned the case to his pocket, then fished out a lucifer and struck it against the bark of the tree. The match flared, illuminating his face with warmer glow for an instant, though it softened his features not at all. Pinpoints of light reflected in blue eyes that appeared unfathomably cruel.

She drew a stuttering breath, fighting off the sensation of fainting. Confronting the cause of her terror made it somehow easier.

The man lit the cigarette and drew a deep drag, blowing out an exaggerated cloud of smoke mixed with breath steam.

"Evenin'." His voice came utterly flat, yet more chilled than the night air.

"Y-you...you were followin' me? In the woods?" Her words came stammering, quaking, tongue refusing to work right. She fought to keep on her feet, force her heart to stop pounding.

"That wouldn't be the gentlemanly thing to do, now would it, missy?" A hint of a smile took his thin lips, but the expression proved in no way comforting or warm. Here was a man devoid of human compassion, she thought. Here was a man of death.

He was lying. She could see it in his eyes. Men were open books to her; she could always read them, knew what they were thinkin', sometimes before they thought it. Her mother had been part gypsy and she reckoned it came from that. This man was no different, just emptier.

Her face tightened. "It was you. Don't lie to me."

He laughed, a crisp gibbering thing that danced over the brisk autumn air and dissolved as quickly as it came. "Well, missy, never did claim I was a gentleman, now, did I?"

She bit her lower lip to stop it from quivering. Her legs shook, but she felt stronger, less likely to pass out. "Just who are you?"

He stared at her, something predatory in the look. His gaze slithered down her body, lingering at the fullness of her breasts, then roved over her skirt and back up. A note of appreciation mixed with the filthiness of the look, repulsing her, replacing some of the fright with disgust.

"Why, missy, I'm you're huckleberry." He took another drag on the cigarette and snapped the smoke out in purse-lipped blow.

She couldn't stop another chill from shuddering through her, though she had guessed the answer before he gave it. "You're Lacy?"

He nodded curtly and tipped a finger to the brim of his creased Stetson. Long thin fingers on a soft-looking, thin-skinned hand. Stringy veins wriggled across its surface like slate-colored worms. "I'm Lacy. At your service--Miss Barton, is it?"

She uttered a whispered, "Yes", and her gaze flicked away, unable to hold his cold stare. "I don't require your services anymore, sir. Please...go back where you came from." Her gaze shifted back to his. She absently brushed errant strands of auburn hair away from her forehead, then tucked them back beneath the powder-blue kerchief she wore.

His face tightened a notch and she realized he was younger than she had first thought, hardly more than a boy, really, twenty or twenty-one at the most. For the briefest of instances a strange sadness welled inside her, like something a mother might feel for a child gone wrong. Fear rushed back in, chasing the sadness away, as she remembered just what this man was: a killer. He murdered men in cold blood and accepted payment for the deed. He was no boy, no mother's child, at least not any longer. He was an instrument of death, a soulless manchild.

And she was little better than that for summoning him here.

After a moment of frozen silence, Lacy took another drag on the cigarette, then tossed it to the ground. "Reckon I didn't hear you correct, missy." His eyes narrowed.

"Indeed, you heard me correct, sir. I made a mistake sending for you. I realize that now. I was distraught, not thinking right. Please accept my apologies for your inconvenience." Her voice shook and she reckoned not a lick of her speech was dissuading.

He pushed himself away from the tree, took a step towards her. "Who gave you my name, missy?"

Her breath clutched and she didn't want to stay in his presence a moment longer. She wanted to run, lock herself in her home and pray the boyish killer would ride back to where he came from.

"I done asked you a question." The man's voice lowered, carrying a blatant threat. "You best answer it." He took another step, dried, frost-glazed leaves crackling beneath his boots.

She pushed out her chin, steadied her voice. "You know his name, sir. He contacted you."

"That don't make no difference. I asked you to tell me."

She didn't care for the way his tone belittled her, like a cruel parent preparing to switch a child within an inch of his life. But fright compelled her to answer him. "Sutter was his name. Drunk in town. Told me you were the best at...at what you do."

"He's right." His smile got wider, snakelike. "He tell you once an order's placed ain't no goin' back on it? He tell you I don't give refunds?"

She shook her head. "No, sir, he did not. But I have your money." She reached into her pocket and pulled loose the folded bills, held them out to him at arm's length. Her hand shook violently and the man chuckled, obviously taking pleasure from her fear. "Please, just take it and go away. Don't do the job, I beg you. The money's yours, free and clear."

He gazed at the cash, running his tongue over his front teeth. "Reckon you don't make that much as a schoolmarm and dressmaker. Must have taken a spell to save up those greenbacks."

A note of surprise escaped her lips and something in her belly plunged. "How do you know that? I told you nothing about myself in the telegram."

He laughed, taking another step closer. "I know all about you, missy. Make it a point never to ride in blind when a client hires me. Too many lawmen smart enough to try a ruse."

"Just take the money and leave me be. Please. You can't go through with what I wanted. I wasn't in my right mind when I called on you." She tossed the folded cash to the hardpack in front of his feet.

He gazed down, then knelt and plucked the money from the ground. Stuffing it into a pocket, he straightened, cold eyes settling on her. A lascivious glint sparkled within them. "Don't intend to go through with it..." His voice came out a whisper.

Somewhere a horse nickered and her gaze swept past him. She spotted the animal twenty feet down the trail, tethered to a tree. His horse. He'd been stalking her all along, watching, making certain she was alone and vulnerable. It came to her suddenly. He was here for more than just the job and her money, though he would steal her long-saved earnings as well. He was here on behalf of the very man upon whom she'd sought revenge.

The notion galvanizing her, she made a mad dash into the forest at trailside. Blind fear and survival instinct filled her legs with strength. She prayed she could somehow lose him in terrain unfamiliar to him.

He leaped after her, animal-like, with liquid movement. The sound of his steps behind her were no longer crashing and clumsy. He had no wish to frighten her with some cat-and-mouse game now; he wanted to catch her, finish what he had come to do.

She swept through fir boughs, the needles tearing at her skirt and blouse, swiping her face. Her feet rolled on fallen branches lurking beneath the thick underbrush, nearly sending her to the ground times over.

Her heart banged with renewed force, throbbing in her throat. Her breath beat out, hot and shallow. She prayed she could outrun him, somehow reach her cabin, where she had a Winchester.

Chancing a backward look, she saw his hurtling form, a mere ten feet behind. He maneuvered through the brush far better than she had hoped.

"Give it up, missy!" His yell carried a ghostly quality in the frigid night, wholly chilling. "I'll be right sweet to you, I promise."

Lying again. The man had likely never said a truthful word in his life, she reckoned, and she knew now she had made an even bigger mistake sending for him than she first thought. He had come not to accomplish the job she hired him for, but to strike her like the lightning of righteousness for daring to take life and death into her own hands. It was too late to beg for forgiveness, too late to atone.

Her head swiveled forward, just in time to avoid running straight into a thick spruce. She twisted, boughs tearing at her as she thrust her arms out before her to sweep them away. Smashing into the boughs spun her half-around, sending her stumbling diagonally into a bole of a huge maple. She hit hard, rebounding from the tree, nearly losing consciousness. Shadow and amber swirled before her vision. She wasn't certain what kept her on her feet, careening forward through the woodland. Her body acted as if of its own accord.

The night forest reeled before her. Sounds of him running through brush penetrated her dazed mind again and snapped her senses back to reality.

Closer, now. Too close. She swore she could feel his hot breath beating on the back of her neck, swore she could feel his fingers reaching out for her--

Johnny Dead is copyright 1996 by Howard Hopkins

Home